WASHINGTON -- An immigration court granted temporary relief late Tuesday to four families picked up by deportation raids, according to attorneys, calling into question whether the mothers and children the Obama administration targeted have truly exhausted their chances to remain in the United States.
Attorneys with the CARA Family Detention Pro Bono Project said the Board of Immigration Appeals granted stays of removal to four mothers and their children -- 12 people total, all from El Salvador -- after they filed appeals to their deportation orders. The project filed other appeals as well, and is continuing to meet with families.
The women and children have been in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement since they were picked up in controversial raids started by the Obama administration over the weekend.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson announced Monday that ICE agents picked up 121 individuals over the weekend, all of whom were considered a priority for deportation because they had received a removal order from a judge, had entered the country since May 1, 2014, and had "exhausted appropriate legal remedies" to stay.
He indicated at the time that some individuals had been spared. "[I]n the course of the operations, ICE exercised prosecutorial discretion in a number of cases for health or other personal reasons," Johnson said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for ICE said the agency "does not comment on matters pending litigation," and reiterated that the individuals targeted in the "enforcement action" had final orders of removal.
"ICE did not target individuals with pending appeals before the Board of Immigration Appeals, or individuals for whom the time period to file such an appeal had not expired," ICE spokeswoman Jennifer Elzea said in a statement. "While ICE will respect any lawfully issued stays of removal, we also reserve the right to pursue any legal avenues available to us to further litigate these matters."
But immigration attorneys, activists and a growing number of Democratic politicians have said relief should be far broader -- and that raids are an inhumane way to treat women and children who fled violence in Central America.
The four families granted stays of removal so they can pursue an appeal are still in custody at South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, according to CARA's Lindsay Harris. She said their stories are similar to those of many other families who have left Central America in the past two years to escape violence.
One woman said she had survived extreme domestic violence and continued to receive threats from her abuser, Harris said, adding that another mother said her family left the country because a gang was trying to recruit her teenage children.
The women had not filed appeals of their removal orders, in some cases because they did not know it was possible to do so without an attorney -- or to do so at all, Harris said.
"The government is portraying that these aren’t meritorious claims for relief, but the fact that the Board of Immigration Appeals has granted stays ... that tells you that something is going seriously wrong here," she said.
Critics argue that many of the Central American women and children with final deportation orders may have a good case for asylum in the U.S., but were unable to adequately present it, often because they lacked representation or had ineffective counsel.
Susana Arévalo, 27, left her home country of El Salvador, where she worked informally in the tourist industry of a southern coastal town. After taking her son to an appointment at a hospital in 2014, she received a phone call telling her that an armed gang had broken into her house and several others nearby. She didn’t know why, though she suspected they may have intended to extort money from her.
Arévalo knew what happened to people who found themselves in conflicts with El Salvador’s notoriously violent street gangs. Her cousin had been killed, and she says she witnessed other killings in her neighborhood. She refused to go home because she fear for her life and those of her small children.
"I left the country directly from the hospital and never went back," Arévalo told The Huffington Post in a telephone interview from the Dilley facility. "I never imagined I would end up in this country."
Statistics released last month by the Salvadoran government indicate that the country has overtaken Honduras as the world’s homicide capital, with a murder rate of roughly 104 per 100,000.
Arévalo crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas and presented herself to immigration authorities, telling them she feared for her life. While detained in the town of McAllen, Arévalo suffered an epileptic seizure and her 8-year-old daughter vomited, so border authorities expedited her case. They sent the family to Atlanta, where Arévalo's parents -- both legal residents -- live. She obtained a lawyer, filed asylum claims for herself, her daughter and her 6-year-old son, and was released from detention.
Arévalo said that as far as she knew, the case was still unresolved when ICE knocked on the door of her parents’ house, where she was staying, on Saturday morning. She said she found out on Wednesday that her asylum application had been denied and that she faced deportation.
ICE indicated the raids will continue. Immigration reform groups have been telling undocumented families not to answer their doors, and to not answer questions or sign documents if they do come into contact with ICE. Some congregations plan to allow families to take sanctuary in their churches to avoid deportation. Groups are also encouraging immigrants to memorize emergency contact numbers, set up a plan for childcare should they be picked up without their kids and prepare their case for why they should still get relief.
In Washington, the raids are heightening tension between the White House and some Democrats, who already criticized the administration for its use of family detention to hold the mothers and children.
"This is not the Democratic Party's solution to immigration questions, nor should it be America's," Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said on the House floor on Wednesday. "We expect heated calls for raids and deportation from the other side. ... Our party has rejected those calls, with good reason. Americans want order and legality in immigration, not deportations and families forcibly split apart or exiled."
This story has been updated to include comment from ICE.
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